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TMNT

Warner Bros/The Weinstein Company/Imagi Animation (March 23 2007), Warner Home Video (August 7 2007), double-sided single disc, 87 mins plus supplements, 2:35:1 anamorphic widescreen and 1.33:1 cropped pan-and-scan, Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, Rated PG, Retail: $28.98

Storyboard:

When a series of mythical monsters run amok, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles must reunite to take them on, battle against the mysterious stone warriors also out to capture the monsters, and face crime gang The Foot in order to save the city!

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The Sweatbox Review:

Although the popularity of the titular heroes in a half shell passed me by back in their 1980s heyday, I could see the attraction in the concept even if the cash-in cartoon show left me colder than a cold slice of pizza. I was impressed by the technical abilities on show in the awesome foursome’s original trek to cinemas, 1990’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, thanks to the amazing animatronic puppet wizardry of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, though the second film, The Secret Of The Ooze was a tired re-tread. I think Mad Magazine’s spoof title The Secret Is To Snooze got it just right, and I don’t think I’ve ever bothered to catch the third (and previously final) entry.

But those mutated turtles, led by their sensei-rat mentor Splinter, never really went away and were the basis of a resurgence in acknowledgment recently, paving the way for new comic books (the medium I always felt they suited best) and animation. Chief among these new ventures was the promise of a new theatrical movie – rumored to be the first of a planned fresh trilogy – that would be created in the computer graphics realm. With the low-budget feel of the original live-action movies and the cheesy nature of the cartoon show scripts consigned to the rubbish heap, it was time to get down and dirty, and back to basics, to the core of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles…

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The animation medium certainly fits the general TMNT concept better than any other, allowing for more flexibility in the movements – certainly more so than anyone in an animatronic suit could handle. The design is likewise able to revert to the original slimmer versions of the Turtles, here they are again lean green kicking machines, again much more so than those bulky suits worn by the stunt performers in the live action films, from which this new adventure takes its cue. TMNT picks up as a semi-sequel to those films, with the threat of a new villain taking the place of the half-shell heroes’ arch-nemesis Shredder, who is quickly explained away during the opening scenes.

It’s in this opening that the film promises to punch a little more than it can deliver: the animation in this sequence very much sets up something much more elaborate than the rest of the movie can match, and as such was no surprise to notice that it was this footage that was leaked out as the film’s initial teaser trailer. There is some great stuff in the rest of the film, though: the animation is by turns sometimes truly impressive on the Turtles – almost motion capture smooth – and then unfortunately clunky, mostly on the other, human characters. Despite being modelled more on the comics, a serious strong point, humans such as the Turtles’ friend April O’Neil feel more sucked out from a direct to video title, and Splinter never truly looks scraggy enough for an aged sewer dweller.

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It’s no surprise to find out that director Kevin Munroe comes from a video game background – there are sequences here that feel lifted right out of a game and the animation often feels like the kind found in mid-level plot progression sequences. As such, the plot races through, like the Fantastic Four movies, structured on highlights alone: things just happen because they need to progress to the next level, as it were, and not because there are any strong reasons for them to do so. The look, also like something from the high-end games world, is all about the textures, though none of it looks remotely real and even the dirt looks too clean!

But it’s directed well, and when the Turtles hop into action there are some fun set pieces to be enjoyed. Imagi Studios’ approach reminded me at times of what a manga movie might look like in CGI…not the literal anime translation such as an Appleseed, but something that moves with the kineticsm of those films. Here it’s combined with the rounded appearance of what I could only compare to Jimmy Neutron, resulting in a look that isn’t anywhere near the keyframe genius of Pixar or even the motion capture of Monster House – hey, it was co-produced by the Weinsteins as a replacement for their Miramax Pokémon acquisitions – and while the story isn’t particularly strong, TMNT is a breezy slice of hokum with an exhilaratingly exciting, if formulaic climax (which leaves things a little hamfistedly open for a sequel).

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The rest of Munroe’s crew put in decent work too, supervised by Ninja Turtle co-creator Peter Laird in an executive producer role. Klaus Badelt provides a vigorous music score that pushes all the buttons his Media Ventures partners Hans Zimmer, John Powell and Harry Gregson-Williams have pushed in projects as diverse as The Road To El Dorado, Shrek and Pirates Of The Caribbean, the first of which Badelt scored in the same rhythmic orchestral style. The other soundtrack contributors – the voice cast – are appropriate too, and though the line up includes such names as Sarah Michelle Gellar, Chris Evans, Patrick Stewart and Laurence Fishburne, there is none of the overbearing that can often come from a highly recognisable Hollywood name cast.

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Ironically, it was Mako – the legendary Japanese actor who here plays Splinter – that appealed least to me. TMNT sadly turned out to be Mako’s final film, for which he’d completed his voice recording before he died, and it’s a nice touch that the movie is dedicated to him in the closing credits, but he comes across with a little too much heaviness and a serious attitude that doesn’t quite feel suitable to the rest of the lighter tone, even if some of the more surfer-dude talk and humor has been supplanted by the aim for more straight action. The credits also reveal a number of long-serving vocal talents, among them Jeff Bennett, Jennifer Hale, Billy West and Jim Cummings, who has worked with the Turtles before, in a manner of speaking.

Ultimately, I’m not sure TMNT warrants a trip to the cinema to be sold as a big screen adventure – in this day and age there are simply too many instances of a lack of perfected character acting to be ignored – but it will certainly play much better in DVD form, where it would have made an astonishing impact if it had been released directly to the format, like a bigger budget version of the Weinsteins’ own Bionicle franchise. Though the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle phenomenon spread far beyond the reach of hardcore fans, and while TMNT makes for action packed lighter fare, I shouldn’t think that this outing would convert those on the fringes to becoming full time followers, but long time fans oughtn’t find too much to complain about and should find much to enjoy.

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Is This Thing Loaded?

Being a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles title, this disc is a FLIPPER – geddit? – and sports both widescreen and fullscreen formats, which otherwise repeat the exact same content on either side, including the 16×9 promo for Warner Brothers’ hi-def titles that opens the disc and the same anamorphic menus. Other previews included are The Last Mimzy, the online Gametap site, Fred Claus, the TMNT games and action figure merchandise and a push for the recent action/comedy releases of Space Ghost, Birdman and Droopy collections. The main menu itself is nothing to write home about – a still graphic and music that does the job.

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Available either as a straight listen, or with optional subtitles (a nice addition being found on more of WB’s new releases) is a full-length Audio Commentary with writer/director Kevin Munroe. Unlike Jonathan Frakes on the doomed Thunderbirds misfire (I’ll always remember the odd choice of handing that film to someone whose first words in the promotions were “I was never a fan of the original show”), Munroe clearly knows his Turtle lore, pointing out inserted references to their previous adventures and the live-action films. This being his first commentary track, there’s an element of the wow factor for him, and he opens up a slightly incredulous comment: “This is so neat, I’m doing a commentary!” which is quite endearing. Appropriately enough for a Turtles movie, a lot in the film is still “cool” to Munroe, but there’s enough examination of story changes, the thought and production processes and a total lack of dead spaces to make this an intelligently interesting listen to anyone who enjoyed the movie. Munroe also speaks about the teaser trailer that was released early to build up excitement, but unusually for a Warners disc, it frustratingly goes missing here.

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An Alternate Opening To The Movie is the first of the video based features, and presents much more of an early Nightwatcher chase sequence in full. Director Munroe narrates, leaving space for the track laid audio, providing context for the material and the reasons for the final changes, though calling it “Splinter Tells The Back Story” as it does on the cover sounds much more grand than it is. Nevertheless, this works as a nice recap and is a very differently timed opening to what was eventually used, presented in 2.35:1 letterbox and running a fun three minutes. Accompanying this is a similarly offered Alternate Ending: Temp/Scratch Test which, going by the unfinished computer rendering, was cut early on, and runs just over a minute.

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A series of deleted, extended or rough test scenes follow, the first of which is Mikey’s Birthday Party: Full Sequence (3:14), that elaborates on the kids’ birthday party we first catch up with Michelangelo at, and only glimpse briefly during the introduction montage in the final film. Raphael’s Rough House: Fight Test (1:40) depicts an early lo-res concept of a scene that ended up in the movie in very different guise, and shows off the more impressive choreography of the Turtles in action, and Monsters Come Alive (2:48) is a storyboard to final film comparison (again with comments by Munroe).

Producer Paul Wang and director Munroe pop up to explain about the unique look the film was striving for in Donny’s Digital Data Files, a two minute clip that goes into Imagi Animation Studios’ software and technical aspects of production, from rough footage to final output, including glimpses at various production test shots. Quick, but packed! Rooftop Workout (5:33) is a music-scored but otherwise mute storyboard for a deleted scene, with only Munroe on hand to explain things, followed by the entire pre-visualised version.

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The Still Wanna Fight!? Temp/Scratch Test (3:10) is a fully rendered April/Casey final scene that was dropped late into production. While Munroe’s comments are as welcome as ever, this was one time I’d wished that his remarks were optional as opposed to being integrated into the audio, since this would have been interesting to see sans director’s yakkin’. Then there’s another Additional Scene: Splinter Gets Cake (2:08) that shows Mikey’s sewer skateboarding entrance rendered in greyscale, leading into an extended fully colored final scene that includes several neat ideas. However, and as much as the director’s comments provide welcome insight, they are again non-optional, so we’re unable to enjoy the scene with the voice track that can be heard underneath.

Promotional items used to be a given on WB titles but they’ve been a little more sparse of late, for some reason, and the closest we get to a theatrical trailer here is the TMNT: Internet Reel, which otherwise does play like an extended preview (at 3:50) but lacks the anticipation of the annoyingly missing in action teaser that is otherwise talked about in the supplements. Finally, the TMNT: Voice Talent First Look gathers the usual soundbites and film clips to emphasise the bigger names in the voice cast, with Patrick Stewart and Sarah Michelle Gellar garnering the most screen time. Like the rest of the extras here, it’s brief but surprisingly intense and, along with the astute commentary, says about as much as anyone needs to say about a movie about talking turtles in its beneficially crammed five minutes.

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Case Study:

Despite the movie kicking reasonable shell, and some proper dark theatrical posters, the cover art here goes the predictable route and touts this as a kids’ movie – hey it’s the Teenage Turtles, right? Animation, yeah? The originally advertised darkly action orientated art has been replaced by brightly colored fun-lovin’ Turtles doing their thang on their boards, though this could also be down to creating less confusion from being mistaken for the video game, which also carries the original, edgier poster art.

An embossed slipcover (uniquely pressed on both front and back) replicates the cover and adds a sticker clarifying this release as the 2007 CGI movie, while a four-page insert promotes the video game, merchandise and the upcoming futuristic television show. Since Warners owns the original trilogy through their New Line company, I’m surprised that a four-pack hasn’t been issued, but TMNT is also available in both HD-DVD and Blu-Ray high definition flavors.

Ink And Paint:

Of course for the purposes of review I stuck with the intended 2.35:1 widescreen framing on side one, but couldn’t resist seeing how the “reformatted” fullscreen edition on the flip side coped with things. I checked some purposely wide framed shots and as if the cropping in the opening sequence wasn’t obvious enough (hey, waitasecond – I thought there were four Ninja Turtles in this movie!), I flashed forward to the showdown with the Nightwatcher around the 55 minute mark for proof that this version is totally redundant.

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As clear as day, and without adding anything to the top or bottom, the fullscreen rendering leads to a pan-and-scan treatment that drastically hacks off the sides of the frame and resorts to adding cuts into the editor’s rhythm and tight framing that’s alternatively unbalanced or just way too cramped.

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I noted that both versions definitely had compression problems with some shots using the night time color palette, and that the image could have done with a little darkening or contrasting overall, as it was a bit on the light and hazy side. Stick to the widescreen image though, which at least gives the correct framing and automatically increases the big screen production value aspirations.

Scratch Tracks:

Quite rightly for a completely studio-recorded animation film, the voices are front and foremost in the mix, though possibly a little too forward. The voices are certainly louder than anything else, leading me to pull back on my center speaker volume to integrate it more with the left, right and surrounds. Apart from this, it’s a good mix, up to the standards that a big action blockbuster requires at least, and even has some fun with the directional capabilities, with Badelt’s hammering music score the main highlight. English, French and Spanish 5.1 dubs and subs are all included.

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Final Cut:

Though some were worried that the move to CGI might not sit well with the comic, cartoon and previous feature versions of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, director Munroe and his team at Imagi pull of the transition with ease. This isn’t top-flight computer graphics (a Spanish General early in the film reminded me unintentionally of Bluto from the CG Popeye special and as such wasn’t as imposing as he should have been) but a game attempt to bring the TMNT up to date. As a result, parents should be warned that the slick but heavy action – actually a nice departure for the CG medium – is not for the very young, but older boys and fans should find plenty to get excited about.

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?

MAIN FEATURE
SUPPLEMENTS
VIDEO IMAGE
SOUND TRACK
OVERALL DVD

 

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